Did I happen to mention that I was reading War and Peace? I finished it last weekend, but I was so drained by the whole experience that it’s taken me a week (during which I read the Everyman Book of Detective Stories, Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology and the first 200 pages of The Phantom of the Opera: god, but it’s good to have my reading mojo back) to marshall my thoughts on it.
Thanks to a wise old Russian woman I once knew who declared that when it came to War and Peace she “only read the Peace”, I had always thought that War and Peace was neatly divided into alternating sections. It does begin that way, but gradually the two strands resolve into a single story. And there’s a third strand, which has nothing to do with any of the rest of it and reads as though it was written by someone else entirely, which consists of intermittent discussions on history and military tactics and how the two are related. You can spot these sections immediately because the close-set narrative voice disappears and we swoop out to an omniscient level that is somewhere on a par with god.
I enjoyed 90% of the peace, 50% of the war and 50% of the philosophy, which mathematically makes this a success story, except that when you take those numbers and apply them to a 1400-page book, assuming for the sake of convenience that each strand constitutes about a third of the whole, you are still left with 500-odd pages of big fat no fun. Add that (yes, more maths!) to the voices of the various people who warned me before I started that the final section of the book was impenetrably dull, and you begin to see why I picked it up with a slight but perceptible sense of doom each time.
The other problem I had was that there are so many characters; so many stories to follow, that it’s hard to know which of them to care about. Even Leo himself seems to have lost track, because several threads are started which never go anywhere. The story starts in the elegant salon of Anna Pavlova Scherer, a bewitching and playful woman whom I expected to loom large in what followed, but she is barely mentioned again. Other characters appear and disappear without consequence; people make spectacular entrances early on, then die abruptly a thousand pages later without having been mentioned in the interim. It took Tolstoy five years to write War and Peace, and I can’t help thinking that by the time he got to the end, he had forgotten the beginning.
I did enjoy most of the Peace, though. The Rostovs are a seductive, chaotic, convincing mess of a family, and the various people who walk in and out of their lives are all worth meeting, though Count Anatole, like his sister Helen, is a pantomime villain. The contrast with the sadder and sterner Bolkonskys is good, too. And I enjoyed the various romances very much, even if they did (with one exception) all get wrapped up in a sentence or two, Tolstoy clearly not sharing my avid interest in the small rituals of betrothal and marriage.
The War is good when things are happening, and less good when nothing is, which is often. I struggled with long descriptions of where the army were stationed, and the benefits and disadvantages their position offered. It may have been beautifully observed, but it was also quite boring. And I have never been able to discern the hierarchy of the various ranks, so I’m sure some subtleties were lost on me there.
I didn’t mind the philosophical stuff, although it suffers from the same problem it criticises in written accounts of history, which is the assumption that the author is capable of abstracting himself from his own time and circumstances and writing objectively about the world. And the last section, a 44-page essay on the nature and meaning of free will, is interesting and I’m glad I read it, but I wish it wasn’t the final section of War and Peace, because the section immediately before it would have made a perfect ending. Without giving too much away, here is what would have been the final paragraph of the book had it ended where it should have done, with the firstborn of the new generation contemplating his family’s past and future:
‘Non’ answered Nikolai, and fell back on his pillow. ‘He is good and kind and I am fond of him,’ he said to himself, thinking of Desalles. ‘But Uncle Pierre! Oh, what a wonderful person he is! And my father? Oh, Father, Father! Yes, I will do something that even he would be content with…’.
And here is the actual last paragraph:
In the first case it was necessary to surmount the sensation of an unreal mobility in space and to recognize an emotion we did not feel. In the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognize a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.
I am glad to have read War and Peace, if only because it’s something I thought I didn’t have the discipline and earnestness of intention ever to do. And there’s lots in there that’s good, and although I wouldn’t unhesitatingly recommend it, I certainly wouldn’t warn you off it. But I am enjoying The Phantom of the Opera more than I’ve ever enjoyed a book, and that’s not because it’s very good (it isn’t).